The first Kingdom Hearts released in 2002. I played it in 2003, borrowing my cousin’s PlayStation 2 to do so. I was captivated by this game, by the characters, the juxtaposition of real-time JRPG mechanics and Disney worlds, and even by the plot. I quickly became invested in the cast and their concerns: Sora’s relationship with Riku, his search for Kairi, and his companionship with Donald and Goofy. It was wacky and there are elements that don’t make sense, but it struck a chord with me.
At the time I was nearly Sora’s age, another teenager trying to figure myself out, working through changing friendships and a changing world. Sora, Riku, and Kairi began to mean as much to me as they meant to one another.
When the sequel came around in 2006, I was there on release day, ready to see my friends again, especially Sora, and to find a way to get him, Kairi, and Riku reunited. I devoured Kingdom Hearts 2, loving every moment. As a result, Kingdom Hearts 2 stands as one of my favorite games, despite its flaws. It holds a part of my heart.
It is fascinating to me that we can become so attached to fictional characters. Ask anyone who plays Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, Fallout, Dragon Age, The Last of Us, or myriad other games; ask anyone who has kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, various sitcoms, or Harry Potter. Our hearts and minds are made for relationships and we latch ourselves to others when we relate to them, even in simple ways. We feel their pain when it reminds us of ours. We want them to succeed because we want to succeed. We want them to love because we want to be loved.
And so, we can find ourselves upset when characters change in unexpected ways. We can also feel a strange dissonance when we have changed without noticing but the characters have remained the same.
Did you ever revisit your hometown after being off at college or in the workplace for a few years and find that things felt different? Maybe you have that one friends (or a few) who didn’t go to college and, surprisingly, are doing the same things they did when you were in high school, and they’re surprised when you’re not really interested in doing those things? Hold that feeling in your mind for a bit.
Jump forward from 2006 to 2019. I’ve followed each Kingdom Hearts game as they have been released, eagerly anticipating Kingdom Hearts 3 to one day come to fruition. I need to see how the story ends. I long to see my friends again.
Kingdom Hearts 3 lands at the end of January 2019. It’s been thirteen years since Kingdom Hearts 2. I’m now in my thirties, married with children, paying a mortgage. Sora, my virtual friend, a character who does not really exist, yet a friend of mine from years gone by, is still sixteen. Time has passed for me; it hasn’t for him.
So I play through Kingdom Hearts 3 and I feel like I’m walking inside of a time capsule. Not much has changed in thirteen years — at least, not here, with these characters, in this world. Lots has changed for me, in my world. And there’s a dissonance.
But, of course Sora didn’t age. It’s a fake world.
Let’s look at another example. Toy Story 3 was a fascinating, beautiful movie. The first Toy Story film released in 1995 and the third installment arrived fifteen years later in 2010. The creators knew any child who met Woody and Buzz for the first time with the first movie weren’t children anymore. Same for Andy: he was no longer a child; he was about to leave home for college. He grew up. And so, ever 1995 five-year-old now a 2010 twenty-year-old watching Toy Story 3 knew intimately what Andy was feeling when he fought back tears saying so long to Woody as he climbed into his car and drove away. We were saying goodbye to our friends, and our childhood, too.
I expected to love Kingdom Hearts 3 the same as I had loved Kingdom Hearts 2 and enjoyed the games in between — but I didn’t. I can no longer look at Sora, Kairi, and the others as peers, feeling what they’re feeling, wanting to walk alongside them. Now they’re kids, and I’m not. The relationship has suddenly changed.
It’s strange to think that created, virtual, not-real worlds ought to follow rules of our world, specifically time. I wonder when it’s better that they do and when it’s better that they don’t. I do think it does a franchise a service when creators of those worlds acknowledge and capture the changes their audience — the visitors to those worlds — undergo. I love my friends more deeply when they grow with me.
Toy Story 3 met me where I was and said “I understand.” Kingdom Hearts 3 left me behind — or, rather, let me leave it behind.
Creators, do not doubt the power of your characters. Stories are powerful. Characters are powerful. Our hearts are made for relationships. If you want people to buy into your world, give them characters to love. Then let those characters grow with the people.